Tenebre has a lot more in common with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage on a visual level than many of his other films. There are no rose red carpets or blue shading against white walls this time out. The lighting in the film is very over-exposed and equally as unnatural as the film noir inspired lighting that so many other directors looked to infuse in their work at the time. This doesn’t mean the lighting isn’t as brilliant as always, on the contrary, his style remains his own but focusing his excesses in different areas. Argento has went out and stated that he wanted to show that one could achieve a similar false reality with excess amounts of lighting as one does by painting the canvas with shadows. Ultimately I find the style very effective, although over time it has given the film a sort of bleached out look. The first few times that I actually watched Tenebre, I felt that the scripting was rather poor and that it tried too hard to be obtuse and difficult to figure out. A common trait in Argento’s work. Well, upon re-evaluating the film yet again with the killer’s identity fresh in my mind it becomes easier to keep up with the massive number of twists and turns. I still think it is a movie that is rather convoluted in terms of its plot, but the narrative does remain a driving force and I have to give it credit for that. There is no trick to keeping up with the narrative, one simply needs to play close attention.
There’s a lot of criticism for Tenebre out there, a lot of it valid and yet a lot of it under appreciates how complex this movie can be. There are a lot of continual themes within Argento’s early works that are continued here and I love how subtle the little touches are. The theme of vision, what we can but choose not to see or what is blocked out during moments of extreme duress, this is something that is talked about a lot in Argento’s work and Tenebre works as a great example of that as the idea is brought up in several instances throughout the film. Argento even stated once that he thinks that this film takes place in some kind of future-tense, perhaps only five or so years into the future where something drastic has happened to the population and the wealthy are all who have survived. Granted, when you watch a Dario Argento Giallo you kinda get that feeling anyway but the movie as a whole has a very otherworldly feel to it and although the movie itself gives no clue to this possible future reality it is a neat concept.
What makes Tenebre a sight to behold is that this Giallo is a victory lap by a masterful director. At this point he had already all but conquered the Giallo right out the box with Crystal Plumage and then branched out into resounding success with Suspiria (ah, we’ll just forget about Inferno for the moment. Didn’t care much for that one) and had very little to prove. This was Argento throwing in his finest achievements into one pot, and Tenebre astounds with it’s entertainment. Perhaps Argento’s bloodiest work (from his prime years at least), Tenebre delivers some of the most memorable death scenes in cinematic history. I of course am talking about two scenes in particular, an axe shot to the head and one of the bloodiest amputations I’ve ever seen in a Italian horror. I really wish I could go over the amputation more, but seeing as it is featured in the climax of the film I think it would be best to just mention it in passing. The blood and gore feels like it has been amped up from some of his previous work and if the gore is what you’re wanting then you’ll walk away quite happy. Argento has never been an exploitation director, more of a artist who uses macabre imagery in order to craft his stories. His films have been violent and many have featured some very gory death scenes, but he’s not the type of director I could ever walk out of a movie talking about the violence for. His stylish camera work and amazing set design has always been the major observation from me. Tenebre is no different when it comes to his technical wizardry. The major talking point of the film is undoubtedly the massive crane shot. Argento starts his camera on a crane outside of one woman’s bedroom and has the camera literally dance around the outside of the apartment, slowly creeping from one window to the next in closeup, all while the extremely catchy Claudio Simonetti theme song blares over the soundtrack. Nothing quite like it has ever been duplicated and it is most certainly one of Argento’s crowning achievements. The sequence doesn’t further the story at all and doesn’t show us anything other than the killer breaking into the house, but that’s hardly the point. The shot is complex, breathtaking and easily the shining point of the whole film. Style over substance without question but this one shot is what the film is all about and why it deserves all the love and respect it receives.
The acting by the principal cast is acceptable, but there’s no real need for any oscar worthy material. John Saxon plays the slimy agent to the best of his capacity, he takes things a bit over the top every once in a while but it’s forgivable because he is so incredibly cool. This man fought along Bruce Lee and helped tackle Freddy Krueger on three separate occasions! He’s a legend and he is just as entertaining to watch here as he ever has been. Our leading man Anthony Franciosa is a little deadpan, but he doesn’t deliver a bad performance. The rest of the cast, other than Argento’s one-time wife Daria Nicolodi who plays Anna and does a great job in the supporting role, are rather inconsequential. The set pieces and fantastic imagery, as well as the labyrinth style plot structure, help keep this from being any ordinary Giallo and make for one of the very best of Dario Argento’s career.